Deirdre flexed her arthritic fingers. Today they’d have to do exercises to move their hands. She wheeled up to the door and shut it. Craft Day could stay outside.
A moment later, Gerlinde knocked and walked in. Tall, square-jawed, fine hair trapped under an odd little cap, the Activities Officer smiled.
Deirdre braced herself. A lifetime ago she’d helped her own children do craft at playgroup, all sticky fingers, glue, glitter, even tears. Later, she’d volunteered at their school. Craft was supposed to helped problem kids. It must work for ninety-year-olds, too.
“Mrs Jenkins,” Gerlinde flashed a big, bright smile, “you know it’s good to get out with the others.”
Deirdre shook her head. The sight of her fellow inmates did little for her. “I hate glue. It gets everywhere. Always has.”
Gerlinde reached down to help Deirdre to her feet. “No glue. We’ve got something different today. Velcro buttons.”
Deirdre sucked in her breath. Her memory must have developed fault lines. Surely buttons belonged on the eyes of corpses. The enemy cut them off the overcoats of the dead cavalry officers and put them, mockingly, on their closed eyelids. She had to get out of Craft. “Maybe I could do some writing, instead?”
Gerlinde gave a melodramatic sigh. “Well, okay. Maybe I can find some paper and a pencil. Would that be suitable?”
No, Deirdre wanted to say. I’ve got my own iPad, but you people keep it locked away in the safe. She twisted her wedding band. The small ruby winked back at her and suddenly Deirdre knew what to do. Just wait.
The other inmates, propped up in their wheelchairs and adjustable beds, lined the large, rectangular activity room. Their eyes followed Gerlinde as she wheeled Deirdre in and apply the brake. The room smelled of tea with a hint of ammonia. Music clicked on. Gerlinde stood back. A few younger workers brought in lap trays loaded with gluesticks and glass jars. Inside, the buttons glittered like eyes.
No! Deirdre leaned forward and knocked a jar sideways. Buttons flew everywhere. Staff gasped. Deirdre raised her arthritic hands and clapped. The pale horses of those long-dead officers materialized in the meeting room. Most of the wheelchair-bound stared open-mouthed: a few grinned and clapped. Staff froze. Gerlinde glared at Deirdre.
“Mrs Jenkins, I don’t know what you’ve done, but,” her voice dropped to below-frigid, “stop it.”
Deirdre closed her eyes. The inmates and the pale horses faded. Instead, she saw the young riders, skin smooth except for an occasional nick from too-hasty shaving. She knew these men. Her fellow inmates here at Sunny Days Home kept the faces of these young men beside them on bedside tables or in framed photos on the wall. In most cases, she even knew their names. Husbands, mainly. Uncles. Cousins. Men who’d gone to war and never returned. Well, well. She raised both hands and folded away the memory of horses. They faded from sight. She concentrated on the men. “Join us,” she whispered, and unfolded the memory of a young cavalry officer, his uniform spotless, upright, a thin moustache over a smiling mouth. Harald stepped through the door, nodded to her and walked up to old Letitia (Lettie to her friends) lying on the bed. Lettie’s eyes widened and her hands reached out. Harald knelt beside his wife and embraced her. Deirdre closed her eyes again. Reginald stepped into the room, nodded to her and walked quickly to his niece. They embraced. Soon Clement, Hugo, Desmond, Arthur, Ivor, Humphrey, John and David joined them. All hugged their nearest and dearest and stayed entwined. A tear ran down Lettie’s cheek. Here and there Deirdre saw smiles.
Gerlinde snapped her fingers in Deirdre’s face, once, twice. “Mrs Jenkins, I give you a direct order. Get. Rid. Of. All. This. NOW.”
“One minute more won’t hurt,” whispered Deirdre. “They haven’t seen these men for seventy years, give or take.”
Gerlinde seized Deirdre’s hand with icy cold fingers. “What’s wrong with you, Mrs Jenkins? You always try to get out of my activities. Anything I organize. These others like being included but no, not you.” Her eyes glittered. “You gave me to understand that you hated Craft, and now look what you do.” The trace of German in her voice became more pronounced. “You make men walk in the door. That’s not something we encourage, here.”
Deirdre pulled her hand away. “I do believe they’ve had enough time,” she said, calmly. “It was only a moment.” She clapped her hands and the men vanished. The inmates blinked and looked around, smiling. “Now you listen to me, Gerlinde.” Deirdre used her least polite voice. “I admit, I tried to get out of your Activities, but I never said I couldn’t do Craft. I could always unfold real people from memories. My friends here loved every minute of it. They won’t protest. Most of them won’t even remember.” Deirdre leaned forward. “Craft is messy, mechanical, a poor man’s attempt at making something beautiful. Glue? Glitter? Cheap, nasty, artificial. I create… here,” and Deirdre touched her heart.
Gerlinde studied her for a moment. “Yes,” she said at last. “You have the heart, but what about the hands? They must work, too, you see.”
Deirdre nodded. Gerlinde did have a point. “This side of eternity,” she said, softly.
Gerlinde’s mouth twitched, as if she were suppressing a smile. “We’re not authorized to take you beyond.”
Deirdre looked up. Until now, Gerlinde had never displayed the slightest trace of humor. Perhaps she’d misjudged her. “Thank God for that.”
“Here.” Gerlinde lowered her voice. “You have a gift, Mrs Jenkins. I didn’t know. Maybe you could use it, another time. For now, take that pen, Mrs Jenkins. Write what you like. Afterwards, I read. No buttons. No glue. All heart. Is that good?”
Deirdre smiled. Forget good. It felt like victory.
Brenda Anderson’s fiction has appeared in various places from Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine to Flash Fiction Online. She lives in Adelaide, South Australia, and tweets irregularly @CinnamonShops.